By Corinne McCaw
On the corner of 1st Ave N and 78th Street N in East Lake sits the epitome of southern culture: a small country store. Massey Mercantile is a “little country store in the big city” selling seed, pest control and pet supplies while offering slow and personal service, just as is expected from an Alabama country store.
Massey Mercantile, owned and operated by Liz and Mark Whidden, first opened its doors downtown almost 115 years ago in a larger building with endless rows of farming supplies. Now, the shop has a sparse selection catered primarily towards pit bulls and the “do it yourself” pet owners, as Mark refers to them. This means they sell shots, “wormers” and grooming supplies.
Whidden took ownership of Massey Mercantile in 2001, then moved the store from downtown to its current location in East Lake, which was formerly a grocery store run by her parents. At the downtown location, Massey Mercantile had been “a mile and a half long” as Liz recalls it. “They had everything, but it was on a bigger scale,” she explains. The staff now consists of Liz, Mark and J.R., a shop hand.
The shop is littered with quirky decorations such as a pig wearing overalls and fake floral wreaths. Displayed behind the checkout counter is the traditional southern paraphernalia of an American flag, a cross, old photos, newspaper clippings about the shop and a photo of Liz and Mark’s late pit bull, Albert.
Mark recalls how many kids used to come into the shop just to see Albert. Today, being “pit bull friendly” is a primary reason many people find their way to Massey Mercantile. “Almost all our food in here is based for pit bulls,” shares Mark. “That’s what keeps them coming in.”
“In a small business, you have to do something to sell something that Walmart doesn’t have,” Mark says.
Mark explains that pit bull-specific food has a higher fat content because people want their pit bulls to grow as large as possible. Typically, this means they have a show dog or a fighting dog. When Mark mentions this, Liz interjects that they do not support dog fighting.
“We’re not about that, but we can’t do anything about what you do with your dog,” responds Mark, and assures me that most dog fighting takes place in the country, not in the city.
Soon after this conversation, a man who declined an interview walks up to the counter and throws down a large metal chain to purchase. “Looks like someone’s getting chained up!” Liz laughs.
Outside Massey Mercantile sits another cornerstone of southern culture: a scripture reference. A Psalm 91 sign is positioned to the side of the building next to young green plants. Across the street is an old apartment complex, and a woman walks across the street into the country store to purchase dog food.
Liz and Mark shared that their “little country store in the big city” has become somewhat of a neighborhood store, and they have regulars come in often. Many now 30-year-olds remember coming to the store when it was downtown to buy candy years ago, and now they bring their children with them. “They just take care of us,” says Mark. “And we take care of them,” Liz adds.